International students are the key to the future of British science

“International students in the UK directly contribute to cutting edge research and the development of new technologies”

Britain is one of just five countries in the world to have developed a WHO-approved vaccine against Covid-19, a triumph that would not have been possible without the countless hours contributed to the project by international students, says Study Group’s James Pitman.

The UK has earned its place as a global science hub, but the government plans to go even further, turning the country into a “science and technology superpower”. This ambitious goal is achievable, but only if we continue to welcome international students and empower them to work side by side with the top British minds in academia and research.

The possibility of research

The UK has already taken positive steps toward welcoming international students, driven in part by the huge financial value they provide to the UK economy – £28.8 billion per year, according to HEPI data. However, viewing international students solely in financial terms overlooks their true value.

International students in the UK directly contribute to cutting edge research and the development of new technologies. The fees that international students pay fund world-class facilities at universities and are fundamental in driving British R&D forward. With an entire quarter of funding for British science unaccounted for by public spending, universities need fee income to subsidise research.

Almost two in every five (37.1%) postgraduates in the UK are international students. Some of the world’s best and brightest can be found in labs at universities across the UK or contributing to R&D teams at British companies.

Take, for example, Nutta-uea  from Thailand. Her academic journey began at Study Group’s Durham University International Study Centre, and she proceeded to graduate with a BSc in Chemistry. Nutta-uea is interested in drug discovery, and she has ambitions to have her name on the patent for a new drug or medicine that could help people around the world. She plans to remain in the UK and pursue a PhD in the next five years before working at a British university or company to contribute to the country’s position as a global leader in pharmaceuticals.

Bashar  from Kuwait has a similar story. He completed an International Foundation Year at Study Group’s University of Huddersfield International Study Centre in 2018 and went on to graduate from  the university with  a first in Chemical Engineering. Bashar plans to settle in the UK and return to the university this academic year, this time teaching future cohorts of students the skills they need to drive UK science forward.

Britain is not even in the top 20 most populous countries in the world, and driving contemporary research is a group effort that requires huge numbers of talented minds. Limiting the recruitment of scientists and researchers to the UK would be to limit the potential of British research. International students aren’t just a boon to the UK’s science agenda; they’re a necessity.

International collaboration can also extend beyond the physical presence of students in the UK – according to Universities UK, 57.2% of all UK publications were the result of international research collaborations. British universities are leading the way on high-quality remote education and using technology to build stronger bonds with international academics in their home countries.

Researchers from overseas also bring important international perspectives. Today’s problems can’t be addressed by any single country. Only by working together and adopting a global perspective can we hope to take on complex issues such as climate change, pandemics, food insecurity and energy.

Looking to the future

The measures that the UK has already taken to attract and retain international students have been effective, as these contribute directly to the nation’s science and technology excellence. According to the government, most international students who move from a Tier 4 student visa to a Tier 2 work visa do so to work in either STEM or business. This transition will be essential to meeting the government’s goals for science and technology.

International education is one of the UK’s greatest exports, but we must ensure that the government, universities, and the public understand that international students are so much more than items on the balance sheet. Students like Nutta-uea and Bashar are crucial to achieving the UK’s ambitious research goals and achieving scientific breakthroughs that save lives. 

About the author: James Pitman is Managing Director at Study Group. James has been driving the international student agenda since 2010 when he played a key role in reversing the UK’s decision to increase the minimum English language levels required to study in the UK – legislation that would have decimated the international education sector. Since then, he’s been a key spokesperson for Destination for Education (the coalition working to defend British universities’ freedom to recruit international students) and is vice chair of Independent Higher Education.